Spectre
Type
Reflection
Category
Cinema
Sexism

Spectral

Attentive readers may remember that at the end of Skyfall, we left James Bond about to enter a psychotic state. Having come into exclusive possession of the dead mother (M) and having vanquished the emotionally cold, forbidding father he’d always hated (Skyfall) Bond is now poised to go completely crackers. In other words, what we should see in Spectre is Bond having a psychotic episode. And we do.

A bit of a recap on infant mental health might be in order, so we can map out Bond’s misogynist trajectory and see how his psychotic state came about.

All babies have to learn to triangulate relationships. First, having an immersive encounter with the mother, the baby eventually realises that there are not two mothers – a bad one that creates hunger and so forth, and a good one that makes the hunger go away – but one mother. This is what Melanie Klein uninspiringly called the ‘depressive position’. The split good mother/bad mother identification she called the ‘paranoid schizoid’ position.

It’s probably true enough to say that men generally have never gotten past the paranoid-schizoid state. There’s some evidence that when men get depressed we tend to blame everyone else, and women tend to blame themselves.

The second part to triangulation is the baby’s realisation that the mother has desires beyond being with the baby 24/7. The mother’s desires beyond a baby can be her work, or her art, or her friends, her partner and so on. It’s a hard thing for a baby to learn, and usually arrives concomitantly with language. We struggle to learn language and when we do, the thing we learn is that language says, ‘No’. Anyone who has spent any time with a toddler will be familiar with the awe-inspiring rage they can display. It is not, as is commonly believed, ‘egotism’, but an encounter with the wall of reality.

Chris Cornell’s epic theme song for Casino RoyaleYou Know My Name said it all, in an eerily prescient way, especially if you think of it as an address from a furious toddler to his father: You can’t have mum, she hates you anyway and can kill us because of her power. I will take your place. I have your cold blood in my veins.

Where the mother doesn’t get to actualise her desires, and neither baby nor mother can negotiate separation, a major developmental lacunae appears. There is no intervention by what Lacanians call the ‘name-of-the-father’. The mother remains an idealised figure that only her child is allowed to desire and possess. In Bond’s case other women become – as Vesper Lynd accurately remarked to Bond as she cut him to pieces on the train to Montenegro in Casino Royale – ‘disposable pleasures’. Any reminder of the name-of-the-father – and who can avoid those reminders – evokes destabilising rage, and very often the creation of a weird delusional master-narrative, an artificial ‘name’ to substitute for and deny the pressure of the actual name-of-the-father. Spectre is chock full of dead mothers and absent fathers (dead, double-dealing and/or betraying).

Even from the little we know of Bond’s deceased parents, Andrew Bond and Monique Delacroix, it’s not hard to put together a scenario that goes like this: handsome mountaineering Scottish landowner, charming but emotionally cold and severely controlling, meets glamorous independent French woman who shares his love of climbing mountains. While she is still charmed, she becomes pregnant and he carries her off to the remote Skyfall where she is virtually imprisoned. Bereft of freedom, in thrall to an abusive husband, the only good thing she has left in her life is baby James. She is the mother who Bond tries desperately to please, to save, to animate. And in following the DV narrative, it would not be a stretch to imagine that when finding out that Monique had plans to leave him, Andrew Bond stages a murder-suicide.

An adult psychosis in this reading of Bond is not, as it is often represented, a florid display of hallucinations and delusions. The psychotic episode is actually the last ditch attempt to cure oneself of a psychosis, to come up with a master narrative: it was always the fault of the CIA; I am a mighty wizard who can speak to Jesus; television communicates mystical truths to me. Or in Bond’s case: Nothing was my fault; I have been manipulated by an all-seeing secret organisation whose tentacles are everywhere.

It might seem like a bizarre enterprise to view Spectre as a prolonged and extravagant psychotic episode experienced by James Bond. But actually – apart from the psychoanalytic underpinnings I’ve outlined – Spectre is laced with weird imagery that gives the idea a robust credibility. There’s too much of it to list in detail, but I’ll mention some of the key ones.

Spoilers follow.

Beginning with a hallucinatory walk through Mexico’s Day of the Dead with Bond dressed as Death (and a great one-take tracking shot that is one of Spectre’s highlights), we discover that Bond has been sent there by Judy Dench’s dead M who spoke to Bond from beyond the grave via his TV. We learn this when Eve Moneypenny, now transformed from quick-thinking field agent to hapless secretary visits Bond in his flat. (Reminder: there are many ways to die if you sleep with Bond.) It’s like the moment in A Beautiful Mind when we enter John Nash’s room and see it papered with mad scribblings. It is as if we have entered his mind. Bond’s rooms are pathetically empty, with forgotten pictures stacked in corners, a couple of chairs and a TV. It’s like the room of a junkie who has a char in once a week. Or someone who sits in an armchair and gets messages from the television.

While on the trail of the terrorist organisation whose symbol is an octopus, Bond tracks down the sinister Mr White, who despite being a psychopathic killer and enforcer (see Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace), is also an absent father who sentimentally keeps pictures of his growing daughter in his secret hideout. When Bond traces White there, White is sitting in front of several TV screens which appear to be showing the incineration of Skyfall from a variety of different angles. It’s a somewhat hallucinatory image, the psychopathic father watching the destruction of the symbolic father. Unless Skyfall’s supervillain Raoul Silva brought a camera crew or two with him when he helicoptered to Scotland to kill Bond and M, it has to be imaginary. Bond is therefore hallucinating watching someone hallucinate the symbolic death of the father.

Bond promises to protect White’s daughter, that is, become the father that White didn’t want to be. Having been an absent and unavailable father who spent his life plotting murder, White then absents himself further by committing suicide.

Bond tracks down White’s daughter to a mental health clinic. For the second time in two films he sits down to be interviewed by a psychologist, this time in the person of White’s daughter the Proustily named Madeleine Swann, who for Bond becomes Time Regained and later has an encounter with an exploding timepiece. Swann accompanies Bond throughout most of the film, so that one of its most enduring sub-texts is that Bond spends a lot of time in Spectre talking to a psychologist.

Madeleine is French, as was Bond’s mother, and probably 20 years Bond’s junior. She fits Bond’s idealised image of his mother perfectly, and Bond gets to act out his childhood paranoid-schizoid generic male fantasy that he can become both his mother’s child and her lover. After a variety of chase scenes, Bond is – for the third time in this series of Bond films – homoerotically tied to a chair by another supervillain. When Raoul Silva tied Bond up and attempted to psychologically demoralise him in Skyfall, it was tempting to imagine that Bond had a forgotten brother, a hated figure who competed with him for his mother’s love. It would explain – I thought – the manifestation of Silva as Bond’s evil twin. Surprise surprise, in Spectre we learn that after his parents’ death Bond did in fact acquire a kind of step-brother, Franz Oberhauser, the older son of a mountaineering friend of Bond’s parents, and who, I imagine – following my DV line of thinking – was the man that Monique Delacroix was planning to leave Andrew Bond for, hence his attachment to James. Charming lost James quickly became a favourite of Oberhuser pére, to the bitter chagrin of Franz. In fact, he was so upset – goes the story of Bond’s psychosis – that he went and built up a spectacular worldwide organisation of terror purely to persecute James.

Here arrives the climax of the psychotic master-narrative. Bond is strapped to a chair like a patient in a 1950s mental hospital and injected with needles. Oberhauser reveals that it wasn’t Bond and his misogynist contempt that was responsible for the deaths of the various women Bond has slept with – Vesper Lynd, Solange Dimitrios, Severine, Strawberry Fields – but Oberhauser himself via his SPECTRE agents. This ludicrous assertion utterly rewrites Bond’s history and alerts us to the fact that the entire film has until this point been a delusional narrative.

In fact Bond becomes more and more un-Bond-like as the film progresses. After an epic fight with Oberhauser’s hitman Bond is miraculously unscratched. Physical punishment that in Casino Royale caused cuts and bruises that Bond carried for days are shrugged off in. No women die as a result of sleeping with him, and in fact Bond deliberately positions himself as their protector. He becomes chivalrous, thoughtful, conscious of the psychological suffering that women have to endure if they spend any time with him. He renounces violence for love. It’s about as un-Bond as it gets. It’s a fantasy-Bond we are watching being created before our eyes, the Bond who has never existed, a delusional representation of Bond’s self and his history and a common practice among men who use violence against women.

As a Bond film, Spectre is a dog’s breakfast. Christoph Waltz is a patchy supervillain, and it really misses Judy Dench’s M, whose castigation of Bond in Skyfall (‘Oh, we sold your flat …You should have called’) and Casino Royale (‘Quite the body count you’re stacking up here’) were always a highlight. The much trumpeted helicopter chase scene over Mexico City is stagey and contrived and all the barrel-rolling choppers in the world can’t compete with the epic freerunning chase in Casino Royale. Daniel Craig of course, owns the screen, and gives his usual stellar performance as Bond, a performance that he has often inflected – strange to say of a character like Bond – with great nuance, despite the weird clunky misogynist scripts. Just before Spectre’s release, Craig reportedly described Bond as a ‘sexist, misogynist’. All descriptions of Bond are tautological I suppose, Bond being Bond. He’s even more misogynist than anyone else.

The plot of Spectre concerns a ridiculous bureaucratic shake-up of MI5 and MI6 that will enable Oberhauser and SPECTRE to control all the world’s information via an intelligence-sharing program called Nine Eyes. In reviews of Spectre this has been characterised as being ‘pro-Snowden’. It’s really more an endorsement of military intelligence and a pretence that they are virtuously not interested in GCHQ-style spying. In Casino Royale M says ‘Christ, I miss the cold war!’ and it’s not hard to imagine that makers of spy thrillers miss it too. Post-Paris, and the creeping militarisation of all of Western Europe, spy thrillers that focus on terrorism have to engage in all sorts of political gymnastics to avoid confronting reality.

In Quantum of Solace Bond has an interesting conversation with CIA agent Felix Leitner in a Bolivian bar.

Bond (truculent): You, know I was just wondering what South America would look like if no-one gave a damn about coke or communism. It’s always impressed me the way you boys have carved this place up.

Leitner (wearily sardonic): I’ll take that as a compliment coming from a Brit.

We can substitute ‘Middle East’ for South America, and it would still be on the money, and Leitner’s reply would still ring true. It’s the most trenchant political comment in any of the Craig-Bond films. Even in the middle of psychotic violence and denial and patriarchal demonising of baddies, the truth can still be unwittingly spoken.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. He was writer-in-residence for the 2015 Mesmerism new music festivals. In 2016, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was recently published by Seizure.

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Comments

  1. Interesting how the character played by Monica Bellucci seemed to be summarily retired from the film.

    My main disappointment was the lack of a chase on skis, which I thought was compulsory once snow was sighted in a Bond film. At least the fluffy cat was included, which I thought would be impossible after Austin Powers.

    Have you, Stephen, seen the French OSS 117 films (Lost in Rio and Cairo Nest of Spies) based on a Bond like character from a long series of books, now played openly as a comedy? The character predated the Fleming books, I believe.

    • Well, Bond does get to ski. He just does it in a plane.
      Belluci’s character occupies the place that Solange Dimitrios did in CR, and Strawberry Fields in QoS and Severine in SF. Having decided that she wouldn’t meet the same end as them (tortured and then killed because of sleeping with Bond) all the writers could do was, as you say, retire her. It underlined the role that women primarily play in Bond movies: to die. When that doesn’t happen, the film literally loses the plot.

  2. I’d like to see Bond come out, see Craig play a gay bond, straight (not hamming it up), and see what happens to psychoanalytical family dynamics then.

    • Given the vast homoerotic subtexts in Bond, I imagine that Bond coming out would in a sense straighten everything out. Normality would erupt. Women would stop dying for a start.It’s a bit like football: a homoerotic activity engaged in by a lot of severely straight men who are terrified of their love for their own gender and terrified of women.

      • Yes, and ipso facto, applies too to most of the world’s male leaders in most fields of endeavour, particularly those male political puppets playing lead roles in the movements of capital and human bodies – cash and trash – but who is ever going to make a confession of real love and a first move toward reconciliation with women and their own gender, and so curb self aggrandising male violence? I’d like to see all that occur, see that movie, that genre, that no gender day, but I’m not hopeful.

        Thanks for the read – gives Bond and human bondage a more real perspective.

  3. John Kudelka, in The Weekend Australian (Review), floats the idea of a female Bond. I’d be curious to see how the franchise floats (or sinks) that one too.

    • Kudelka misses the point that Bond is a male fantasy, so having Bond as a woman would just become another male fantasy. And even thinking of her as a woman is a male fantasy.

      • I’d be interested still to see how such a gender swap was managed though, and what the reaction of women would be (and men for that matter), given that Bond (due to particular actors playing Bond, notably Connery) has been a female fantasy too. It would create more of a discussion point than dreaming up a next and a next insane male fantasy simply to extend a profitable franchise. We have a pretty good idea of how a female Bond might be received in Australia though, given the response and reaction to a female PM in this country (where a PM always had been a male fantasy).

        • I can’t see how it could be managed at all.That’s the point. Franchise owners of US superheroes have enough trouble coming up with female versions of Batman or Superman – who are always Bat or Super ‘girl’- and whose relationships with women are formulaic. Bond is dependent on women, where as the Batman or Superman ideal is that women are largely unnecessary, or appear as cheerleaders, occupying roughly the same position as women in a football game.
          I don’t think the various Bond actors have been female fantasies at all, but male fantasies of a female fantasy.

          • I must admit I did a double take in my own head when I wrote the female fantasy bit, but went with it anyway, just to see the response. You can tell too that Eon Productions and its holding company are fast losing the plot from the abstract titles of late (Skyfall, Spectre), and the blind alley searches to recover the formula that worked historically. The Bond gig’s time is almost up. It has had its day.

          • Well given that that Bond now has an unsustainable (still sexist) mad narrative that he is really a protector of women etc etc, you may be right. On the other hand Craig apparently has one Bond film still to go. Should be quite a train wreck.

  4. I find the Craig-Bond movies really interesting, because in trying to give Bond a backstory all kinds of things about Bond, and about masculinity (and the security state and the war of terror) are revealed. In my Skyfall review a couple of years back, I wrote that creating a backstory for a superhero “doesn’t work for Batman, because there is never going to be a billionaire philanthropist who disguises himself as giant bat, wears superhero body-armour and chases mutated super-villains. It works for Bond because there are actually plenty of narcissistic murdering misogynist psychopaths around who think they are saving the western world from evil”.

  5. Thought I’d add that I may be wrong about Bond’s impending caputedness, having seen box office figures for Spectral here in Australia, and around the world. “It’s the bottom line, stupid.” Guess you’ll be updating Bond violence well into your dotage then. Good luck wiv zat.

  6. In my dotage would be now. I’m just going to take up reviewing and psychologically profiling blockbusters. Other kinds of writing are too hard and dispiriting. At least Spectre had a curious logic to it which is more than can be said for The Force Awakens which made no sense at all

  7. I appreciate you find the backstory and psychoanalysis of Craig’s Bond interesting, as I do too somewhat. However, with the greatest respect, I think you’re going a little too deep here. At the end of the day, it’s a film, we’re attracted to dramatic storylines and the filmmakers need to provide one. It’s not just any film though, it’s a Bond film: one does not go to see a Bond film for an entirely PC cinematic experience, he goes (assuming the cinema-goer is male, as is statistically more likely for a Bond film) for the fast cars, the explosive action, the sex and gadgets that recapture our childlike and teenage wonder. The treatment of women in the film series HAS definitely improved over the years; one no longer sees Bond overtly blackmailing women to sleep with him as in Thunderball or physically hitting women like in Diamonds Are Forever. The argument as for whether the Bond films have a place in the cinema anymore or whether it’ll be long before they kick the cinematic bucket is unnecessary – the reception of the films and the money they make speak for themselves. If the audience didn’t want to see Bond, they would not pay money to see it in the cinema.

    • It sounds as though you are putting some categories of cultural production outside of any possibility of critique. Books, films, art works always speak beyond the intention of their creators. As I’ve said before, the re-booted Bond films are interesting because they try to give Bond a credible backstory, and in doing so reveal interesting things about misogyny. In the same way, The Force Awakens and other Star Wars films reveal something about fascism and racism. Men may go to see Bond films for the action scenes, or even – god forbid, to recapture ‘teenage wonder’ – but what is spoken to them is much more than that. The generic film critic’s take on Craig’s Bond is that the representation of women has improved since the franchise began. I would argue that it has just changed, and become more sophisticated, but is still basically the same package as it was under Connery. Even Daniel Craig has acknowledged that.

  8. It’s sad there’s a believing male audience for archetypal Bond films still. I’d like to think the world would be a better place if there weren’t.

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